Pilot praised for avoiding buildings as RAF jet crashes

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An RAF pilot ejected safely seconds before his plane crashed into a road near Oxford yesterday afternoon, narrowly missing a pub and an off-duty police officer who was driving home.

Just before 5pm, witnesses heard a "thunderous noise" and saw a green plane fly very low over Sturdy's Castle pub, near Kidlington. The GR9 Harrier jump jet hit the ground and exploded in a fireball, coming down on the A4260 between Kidlington and Banbury. Witnesses said the pilot ejected close to the ground, and the RAF praised his "outstanding skill" in avoiding buildings.

"It was quite mind blowing," said Graham Billinge, 58, who was attending a training course at the pub. "We heard a deafening noise which was obviously a jet aeroplane that was extremely low. We rushed outside and we saw, over the trees, the pilot parachuting down. There was then a thunderous crash and loads of smoke and flames and the plane had come down.

"I don't know how he missed the hotel (Sturdy's Castle) and garage, but it was very, very close. I think he must have left it right up until the last minute and I think he deserves some praise for that because it could have been catastrophic."

Huw Jones, who lives in the village of Tackley near by, said: "I thought: 'Bloody hell, that's a bit low.'" Harriet Mullins, 14, was watching television with her sister Sarah, 21, when they heard the plane roar over their house. They rushed outside to find it had crashed into their neighbour's field 200 yards away, ploughing through a dry stone wall and onto the road. The pilot, a middle-aged man in camouflage fatigues, landed in their paddock.

"He couldn't get up but a police helicopter landed soon afterwards and we could see him moving his hands and feet," she said. "He phoned his base I think, and asked to speak to his boss. He told him that he was OK but that he had crashed his plane."

Other witnesses said that they ran towards the explosion, which sent flames 25 feet into the air. A man who told them he was an off-duty police officer staggered up the road towards them. He explained that he had been driving home from a nearby police station when the jet almost hit his Ford Escort, which was hit by the blast wave and flying debris and spun 360 degrees. He was taken into the pub, where his wife soon arrived to help pick the glass fragments out of his face, arms and back. Thames Valley Police said that paramedics treated the pilot for minor injuries at the scene, placing him on a spinal board as a precaution. No further casualties were reported.

Police threw a wide cordon around the scene of the crash and firefighters tackled the burning, twisted wreck. The crumpled Ford Escort sat at the edge of the road.

The Ministry of Defence confirmed that the aircraft and one pilot, who came from RAF Cottesmore in Rutland, had been on en route to nearby RAF Fairford for an air tattoo. Speaking at an impromptu press conference held at the scene, a squadron leader based at High Wycombe praised the pilot's "outstanding skill" which he used to avoid buildings.

"It takes years and years of practice to get those skills and clearly, the fact that this has not been a major incident in what is quite a populated area is testament to his many years of experience," he said.

"The fact is that his skill in avoiding the mass population areas will be good for morale at the base. Clearly it's never good when we lose one of our aircraft but he has been able to use his skills in this instance." He said an investigation would now be launched into the crash.